In a characteristically thought-provoking report in the November 28 Voice, Peter Noel told of the demotion of Yaa Asantewa Nzingha, a black teacher at the Ronald Edmonds learning center, a junior high school in Brooklyn.
She has been much praised in the past by the school’s principal, Katherine Corbett, as a “master drama teacher” who “accepted many extra assignments in order to showcase the outstanding creativity and the abilities of her students.”
Nzingha, however, ran into trouble because, as Noel writes, she had told black students to no longer call themselves Americans; they should refer to themselves as Africans.
Moreover, the Chancellor’s Office of Special Investigations has been examining Nzingha for having encouraged her students to participate in a demonstration demanding that she be reinstated. In addition, Noel points out, “some teachers who participated in the protests are being targeted for discipline.” And some students who also took part are being interrogated.
In this convergence of free speech issues, the official harassment of the teachers and students supporting Nzingha in the demonstrations clearly violates their First Amendment rights. As the Supreme Court declared in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District (1969):
“It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
And certainly, some of the leaders of the protests—the agitprop specialists Khallid Abdul Muhammad and Sonny Carson—are also vigorously exercising their First Amendment rights as Americans. As was everyone else at the demonstrations.
But what of Nzingha’s free speech rights? If a teacher instructs her students that the earth is flat, there would be a question as to her competence for that job. But according to Noel’s reports, a charge against her was “violating a regulation by Chancellor Harold Levy, which prohibits the opinionated teaching of race and politics.”
Actually, as I have found out, there was such a regulation—much longer and vaguer, titled B-401. It was promulgated in May 1982. But Chancellor Harold Levy revoked that regulation, among many others, last June. The chancellor’s office tells me there is no such policy now in effect.
So the question is not whether Nzingha has gone against any policy but rather whether she has fully explored, along with her seventh- and eighth-grade students, the ramifications of her instructing them that they are Africans—not Americans.
“I do tell them that,” she reportedly told another teacher. “And I tell them every chance I get, because they never will be Americans.”
Noel writes that after the October demonstration in her support, Nzingha was “barred from entering the school ‘for any reason.’ ” There are other counts made against her—for example, not meeting Board of Education guidelines for the skits she has her students act in, and for also allegedly having problems with attendance and punctuality. But I think it is fair to say that if it were not for Nzingha’s exhortations about the actual identity of her students, she would not have become the center of this storm.
If I were the principal of Ronald Edmonds Learning Center, I would have handled this controversy in quite a different way. I would have co-taught a session with Nzingha and her students—not to upbraid her but to explore the consequences for the students of her insistence concerning their true identity.
To begin with: Should these black students renounce their American citizenship? Or should they no longer vote in American elections? Was Jesse Jackson at fault for his persistent First Amendment efforts to win the Florida balloting for Al Gore?
Also, should her students then no longer rely on the First Amendment for their rights to protest and to assemble? I would ask them and Nzingha if the following black American leaders throughout American history falsified their national identity by wielding the First Amendment as a sword against the pervasive racism, discrimination, and inequality to which their fellow blacks are subjected: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Thurgood Marshall, Al Sharpton, and Malcolm X, among many others.
On his way back to America from a pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm wrote me, among his other friends, about his plans for his Organization of Afro-American Unity. In 1964, the year before he was assassinated, Malcolm issued a statement of that organization’s principles.
In that statement, reprinted on page 437 of the newly published Let Nobody Turn Us Around: Voices of Resistance, Reform, and Renewal, edited by Manning Marable and Leith Mullings (Rowman & Littlefield), Malcolm wrote: “The Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Constitution of the U.S.A., and the Bill of Rights are the principles in which we believe, and these documents, if put into practice, represent the essence of mankind’s hopes and good intentions.” (Emphasis added.)
I would also ask Nzingha and her students their reaction to what Louis Farrakhan said at the Million Man March. On C-SPAN, he declared: “There are people who do not want me to speak today, but I am here because of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
As principal of the Ronald Edmonds Learning Center, I would have called a schoolwide assembly on whether black students should call themselves Africans. And I would have spoken about the late Ronald Edmonds, a high official in the New York school system, who was black, and one of the most determined educators I’ve known. He demanded that principals and teachers be accountable for enabling every student to learn. I wonder if Nzingha knows who he was, and how he continually used his First Amendment rights.
To learn how Ronald Edmonds’s principles can work, see “A Model for Learning in a Harlem School” (New York Times, January 2). It’s about the Frederick Douglass Academy, a public school. Chancellor Levy should read it too.
I have just heard from Peter Noel that Yaa Asantewa Nzingha has been fired. I do not believe that you educate people by firing them.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 16, 2001